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Sunday, December 12, 2010

writing: San Francisco, cities, and another report from LOSCON, 2010

I'm in San Francisco this week,and what a joy! To be in the heart of the city for an entire week!

What is it about cities that compels the imagination? Outlying rural or suburban areas exhibit certain regular patterns of not only peaceful patterns of travel, but also of behavior. A city seems to be filled with chaotic babble, and frenetic jostling. Tall buildings and narrow streets lend an aura of mystery - of nooks and crannies to the setting. As if secrets can be kept. Secrets that would be all exposed in a rural or suburban setting.

This brings to mind a panel that I visited a few weekends ago at LOSCON, the convention of literary science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about the panel Is Steampunk Anachronistic? a few days ago. This panel was called Mean Streets as a Setting for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The first thing everyone wanted to know was -- how can you have 'mean streets' in a fantasy? Isn't the point to have a 'fantastic' or magical setting? Why would you need 'mean' streets?

The answer, of course, is to create authenticity for an imaginary place.

The panel brought up two environments - the 'classic' fantasy city/setting vs a real city setting such as London or Chicago (either present or past). Examples of classic fantasy cities include: Oz; Courasant (Star Wars); Mos Eisley (also from Star Wars); Metropolis (Superman); Gotham City (Batman); Gondor (Lord of the Rings). Only a few of these 'classic' cities feel like real cities.

One panelist mentioned that even as a kid, he knew that 'Oz' was not a real city. Why? Because there was no one around to pick up the trash. Who ran the fire department? Munchkinland was more 'real' than OZ because you had a sense that there were different normal/routine functions that were being taken care of. Likewise, Mos Eisley is a 'real' city, while Courasant is not.

Why would Marvel Comics put Spiderman in a real New York City rather than either a Metropolis-like city or a Gotham-like city? Because it adds the extra spice of authenticity that neither one of the other analogs possess.

One panelist mentioned that the best depiction of Rome is in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum- the movie. They had found a set that had already been used for a big Rome movie, and they added a lot of garbage to it - pigs running loose and unsavory types loitering around. These elements added to or implied a 'functionality' aspect of city life that is often missing.

That's not to say that a city is about garbage and pigs and unsavory types. A friend who was with me at the convention pointed out that cities are inspiring and wonderful and hopeful places. This should not be overlooked just to incorporate an underbelly to the setting.

The best answer came from Cecil B. DeMille, movie maker from the classic period of the 1940-1960s. He was once asked what his extras were doing, and replied that each one had a story for what they were doing in each scene. The extras! They had made up a little story. For example, one person was on her way to have the heel of her shoe fixed at the local department store in the scene. She even had a shoe with a broken heel in her handbag. The reporter was astonished at this level of detail that the great DeMille demanded even from the extras. But the result in every scene was a setting that felt 'lived in.'

Tomorrow I'm going to breakfast at a little hole in the wall breakfast place on Market Street in San Francisco. The last time I was there, a suite of construction workers (who'd already been at work a couple of hours before this breakfast jaunt) stood in line behind me. More city people on their way to work will be there. And as mundane as it seems, for those few moments I'll feel like part of a community, living and sharing the same experiences; comfortable as an old pair of boots. What a joy!

Free the Princess: On the Problem of Steampunk as "Window Dressing"

Free the Princess: On the Problem of Steampunk as "Window Dressing"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

writing & science: Deux et Machina and the Dawn of the Cambrian era

Hi everyone!

I wrote a little story this month for the online science fiction magazine: i09


Last month i09 called for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. i09 believes that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth's history.

This is a great start. I agree with the magazine that a good way to lay the groundwork for progress against environmental disasters is stories that make people think. I decided to do a story from the deep past of Earth's history, drawing on some knowledge I have as a planetary scientist.

In Earth's history, science tells us there have been three great environmental disasters - the disaster that precipitated the formation of the eucaryotic cell, the lime disaster, and the rise of Oxygen. This story is a light-hearted (hopefully) look at the response of a bunch of jelly-fish when called upon to take personal action to mitigate the lime disaster.

The story is pretty heavy with biological 'buzz' words. A brief glossary is included at the end of the story. What happened, to the best of our knowledge, is this:

600 million years ago vast amounts of calcium carbonate (sort of like bicarbonate of soda, but with calcium) began to precipitate spontaneously out of the sea. The crisis was caused by carbon saturation of the sea water – carbon dioxide passing through the water in the presence of calcium, reacted to form calcium carbonate, or lime. Resultant encrustations, or pile up of the solid precipitate to form a crust, constituted a hazard for life in the ocean.

In response, the biota developed a range of potent chemical inhibitors, including a mucus that inhibited calcification. The same anti-calcifying mucus that protected the soft tissues from encrustation helped skeleton formation by keeping calcium crystallization organized. Thus, with strong intervention by organisms, the production of limestone in the open sea, and therefore a key part of the carbon cycle, was brought under biological control at a critical juncture in evolution – just before the start of the Cambrian biological explosion.

The story is told 'steampunk' style. Steampunk is a send-up of the Victorian era. It is sometimes called 'retro-futuristic' because it looks back, but with a modern twist. Examples include The Wild Wild West, the movie & tv show. Steampunk is from the era of Jules Verne, where there were mad scientists, ladies with parasols, adventurers with goggles on, and an inquisitive desire to solve problems mechanically (see my blog post from earlier today.)

In this story I also built in a little spoof of the movie A Clockwork Orange (since steampunk as a general rule has a fascination with clocks and gears - the technology of that period - and the title included a reference to clockwork). I called the story A Clockwork Lime: How the World got Stuck with Lime-repellant Mucus 500 million years ago – or The Strange Tale of the Original Carbon Problem

What's interesting to me is that a writer is not supposed to resort to 'Deus ex machina,' or as someone recently blogged, putting the onus on God, as a plot device, to solve a problem. Any miracles must arise from the guts of the story. As a writer, I didn't violate this rule; I invoked a mad scientist to solve the problem. But in real life, there was no mad scientist.

Writing: Award Winner!

I have won my first award! The Versatile Blogger Award. Oh yeah, Oh yeah. And my synopsis for People of the Lie just won second place in the MERWA contest!!

One of my favorite bloggers tagged me for this. I'm so honored, because I adore this writer - solely from her blogs. Haven't picked up her books yet, but am intrigued by those published by Siren publishing: Captured, Daughters of Persephone, and All Four One. Her name is Julia Rachel Barrett.

From what I can figure out, the history of this award is as follows: BLHMistress over at Book Lover’s Hideaway awarded it to The Creative Well who awarded it to Sugar Beats Books who in turn awarded it to Julia Rachel Barrett. Thanks Julia for awarding it to me!

As a 'taggie' I must do the following:
1) Share 7 things about myself. (LOL)
2) Pass this award on to 15 other bloggers recently discovered. (cool)
3) Notifiy the recipients. (You know who you are)
4) Link the blogger who gave this award. (see shout-out above!)

Here're seven things about myself that I don't advertise to everyone (Oops!):
1. Now that I am a scientist, I hardly ever read science fiction (gotta change that!).
2. One of my favorite bucket-list things was going to fashion week in New York with my sister (the fashion reporter), and pretending to be a journalist so as to see the fashions.
3. Another one of my favorite bucket-list things was going to Centre Court Wimbledon.
4. I am a huge Jane Austen geek.
5. One of my favorite movies is Bambi II (because Patrick Stewart is the Great Prince!).
6. I never listen to my own voice on the voice-mail nor watch myself if I'm on TV.
7. My biggest high in this life (besides being a scientist) is galloping a horse through the forest and taking jumps.

Now for the 15. Fifteen is a lot, but believe it or not, I've gotten familiar with the blog-o-sphere, and some of these spots are fast becoming my favorites!

  • Preternatura! (Suzanne Johnson)
  • One Writer's Way (Beth Rissel)
  • Writerly So (Deanna Cameron)
  • Planet Furaha (speculative biology) (Gert van Dijk)
  • Paranormality (Lynda Hilburn)
  • Rosalie Lario (Rosalie Lario)
  • Suzanne Lazear (Suzanne Lazear)
  • Around the Writer's Block (Nina Pierce)
  • The Steampunk Writers Guild (Lia Keyes)
  • Reading the Past (Sarah Johnson)
  • Silver Goggles
  • Archeologist's Guide to the Galaxy
  • writing: Steampunk Panel Report from LOSCON, 2010

    LOSCON is a science fiction and fantasy convention that took place at the LA airport Marriott hotel the week of Thanksgiving. There were quite a few panels on Steampunk. I went to this one:

    Title of session: Is Steampunk Anachronistic?

    generic answer from the whole panel: Yes!

    Question - is it even possible? giant airships? corsets outside of your dress?

    The panel seemed to agree that steampunk was more a style than a specific code
    or lexicon for writing a book. But there can be disconnects in which the
    anachronisms are more egegious than at other times. In particular the panel
    felt that historical or technical anachronisms were much more acceptable than
    behavioral anachronisms. And that comedy made the anachronisms more acceptable
    than in other forms of literature.

    Examples cited by the panel for disconnects included (a) in Wild Wild West, the
    movie with Will Smith (an African American in the title role), that as soon as
    the movie brought up the civil war, and that the civil war was fought for the
    reasons it was fought for, then the movie did not work anymore. [And the panel
    made lots of jokes about giant mechanical spiders]. Also Wild Wild West, the
    movie, had a fully integrated Chinese female character who the panel called into
    question after the civil war reference. (b) in Pirates of the Caribbean, where
    the female character asks someone on the beach 'Are you OK?' Or another movie
    about Easter Island in which one survivor tells another 'OK, let's focus...' (c)
    The Great Race was cited as a really bad anachronism.

    Don't take 21rst century characters and dress them in period costume and call
    it steampunk.

    The panel said that an author needs to have some sort of 'cover' for their
    anachronism -- it need be no longer than a single sentence long, but it must
    exist or the reader will think it is an 'imaginary' story. You need to be like
    a fraudulent policeman, who at least presents a fake badge to simulate a
    reality. Anachronism can come along if the author is sloppy about their 'cover'

    These comments begged two questions -- (1) if you have period characters, and
    stick to it, how do you appeal to 21rst century sympathies? (2) Can you have
    Steampunk at all if you get rid of all the anachronisms? the panel's response:
    Leviathan is an excellent example of a steampunk story that does not make use of
    20th century characterizations. also, just as there is a certain degree of
    'accepted' science in comic books - Kryptonite, and the very fact that Superman
    is in most respects 'Human' -- so there is a certain acceptance of anachronsim
    in steampunk. The trick is to keep/make it credible/consistent; to stretch the
    reader's gullibility without making it an alternate history (which is a
    different genre).

    Anachronisms in costume: Victorian clothing was very restrictive, but an
    Adventurous, pragmatic female protagonist would abandon certain clothing. so
    some of the clothing choices can be made consistent with character.

    There were lots of other interesting comments, but I found this one to be a take
    away from the session - that Americans are fixated on How Things Work. And in
    contemporary life we are moving away from being able to obviously 'see' the
    working mechanisms of things. Take the iPhone. It has a touchpad, and how it
    works is largely invisible. The automobile that you might have been able to fix
    yourself 20-30 year ago, is now only diagnosable with a computer. So steampunk
    might be thought of as a harkening back to a time when the mechanisms were more
    tangible and accessible to the average person.

    Also - there's a steampunk Star Trek on Youtube